Japan Glances

“Osechi Ryōri”: Japan’s New Year Cuisine

Food and Drink

At New Year in Japan, it is traditional to eat osechi ryōri, a range of dishes with auspicious names representing wishes for future fortune.

Auspicious osechi ryōri dishes are an essential element of a traditional Japanese Shōgatsu (New Year). The name osechi derives from sekku, the name for five seasonal festivals, of which Shōgatsu is the first in the calendar—others include Hinamatsuri on the third day of the third month, and Tanabata on the seventh of the seventh month. The custom of eating special food at the sekku originally came from China, and New Year cuisine became known as osechi ryōri in the Heian period (794–1185), while the current array of dishes became typical around the eighteenth century.

Osechi ryōri is prepared to welcome the toshigami (New Year gods). The colorful dishes, representing the bounty of land and sea, are associated with various types of good fortune. To give a break from food preparation at this time of year, they are made to last for several days.

The traditional jūbako used to serve osechi ryōri are rectangular, tiered, lacquer boxes—black on the outside and red on the inside—representing the wish for repeated luck. The number of tiers varies regionally, but in the case of five tiers, the top often includes special celebratory foods and appetizers to accompany drinks, the second vinegar-dressed and grilled dishes, the third more grilled dishes, and the fourth simmered dishes. There is a custom to leave the bottom tier empty to allow fortune to come in.

The three celebratory foods for the top tier in the Kantō area around Tokyo are black soybeans, herring roe, and candied sardines. In Kansai, the former two are generally accompanied by pounded burdock.

Tiered boxes and plates for osechi ryōri.
Tiered boxes and plates for osechi ryōri.

Fortune Comes in Many Forms

There are many propitious names for the different elements of osechi ryōri. This is due to a traditional belief in Japan in kotodama, whereby words have a spiritual power, and can enact wishes when spoken aloud. The belief has influenced the selection of New Year dishes.

Black Soybeans (Kuromame)

Mame, the Japanese word for “bean,” sounds similar to mamemameshii or “diligent,” and the wish is that eating them will foster healthy diligence in the year ahead. The dish is made by simmering black soybeans in soy sauce and sugar, and is packed with vitamin B, which is good for preventing colds.

Herring Roe (Kazunoko)

Associated with fecundity and descendants—the Japanese word sounds like kazu no ooi ko or “numerous children.” It is seasoned with mirin (sweet cooking sake), soy sauce, and dashi (soup stock), and topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).

Candied Sardines (Tazukuri)

Made by roasting small dried sardines (Japanese anchovies) in a sweet soy sauce glaze. In the Edo period (1603–1868), sardines were used as fertilizer for rice paddies, giving rise to the dish’s name tazukuri, literally “field-making.” With plenty of calcium, they’re good for keeping bones healthy.

Pounded Burdock (Tataki Gobō)

After the burdock root is pounded to break down its fibers, it is dressed with sesame and a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, and mirin. The dish carries the wish that the family will stay firmly rooted in the land for generations to come. High in fiber, it is good for digestive health and lowering cholesterol levels.

Red and White Kamaboko (Kōhaku Kamaboko)

Kamaboko is made by shaping surimi (minced fish or seafood paste) into a half-moon shape. The red and white kōhaku kamaboko eaten at New Year suggests the first sunrise of the year. This color combination is also considered auspicious as red wards off evil spirits and white represents purity.

Chestnut and Sweet Potato Mash (Kuri Kinton)

Candied chestnuts combine with mashed sweet potatoes in this dish. The golden color represents a wish for prosperity, and the sticky, sweet taste makes this osechi ryōri regular a popular choice with children.

Konbu Rolls (Konbumaki/Kobumaki)

The konbu (kelp) used for wrapping these rolls is propitious for its similarity to the word yorokobu (to be happy). The word maki can also be used for volumes of books, and so is associated with study and learning. Often the rolls are packed with herring; this is nishin in Japanese, which sounds like “two parents,” and expresses a wish for their long life. Other fish, however, such as salmon, may be used in different regions. The rolls are wrapped with a kanpyō gourd strip.

Sweet Rolled Omelet (Datemaki)

This dish is made by mixing white fish surimi with eggs, adding sweetness with sugar and mirin, then baking in a rectangular pan and rolling with a bamboo mat. The date in the name expresses elegance and sophistication. Like konbu rolls, the maki is connected with books and learning, representing a wish for academic success.

Pickled Carrots and Daikon (Kōhaku Namasu)

Another dish with the auspicious kōhaku or “red and white” color combination. Finely cut carrots and daikon are pickled in sweetened vinegar. Daikon contains diastase, which is good for digesting starch, as well as plenty of vitamin C, while the beta-carotene in carrots combats fatigue.

Shrimp (Ebi)

The curved backs of cooked shrimps represent a wish to live to a great age when one’s own back is curved.

Sea Bream (Tai)

Generally served with its head and tail still attached, the fish is known as tai in Japanese, suggestive of medetai, or “auspicious.” The madai variety is red, a color that was believed to ward off evil.

Simmered Vegetables (Nishime)

A mixture of root vegetables and other ingredients in dashi, flavored with soy sauce and sugar. While the recipe varies regionally, common elements include taro (representing fecundity), lotus root (the holes symbolize a clear future), dried shiitake (shaped like a turtle’s shell to stand for longevity), konnyaku (konjac; shaped like reins to represent marriage ties), arrowhead root (the large shoots signify career success), and carrots (shaped like plum blossoms to welcome the spring).

On the morning of January 1, members of a household wish each other New Year with the phrase Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu, and eat osechi ryōri together with zōni soup and mochi. Festive iwaibashi chopsticks are thinner at both ends than ordinary chopsticks.

Alternatives to the traditional osechi ryōri may be based wholly or partly on Western or Chinese cuisine. Instead of making their own, more households also order in advance from stores, ryokan, or online.

A New Year spread with zōni soup, iwaibashi chopsticks, and osechi ryōri. (Courtesy David Z. on Flickr)
A New Year spread with zōni soup, iwaibashi chopsticks, and osechi ryōri. (Courtesy David Z. on Flickr)

Photo: A New Year spread by David Z. on Flickr

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: Osechi ryōri in boxes. All photos © Pixta, except where otherwise stated.)

food New Year shogatsu osechi